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The Sound of Summertime

Summertime Sounds

By Dale Mayo  

It’s officially summer.  Being at home all the time – no office, school, day camp, shopping, gym, concerts, sports events, museums – is the new normal for many of us and now that it’s summer we’re really missing weekend getaways and longer vacations.  Beaches may be off-limits or available with only limited capacity[1] as the coronavirus spreads in Florida and other waterfront destinations[2] and some states are imposing a 14-day quarantine for travelers coming from hotspots.[3]  The EU may not allow Americans travelers as it reopens borders.[4] 

Those of us remaining at home are still enjoying the sights and sounds of nature with clearer air and reduced commuter and flight noise. With the start of summer, however, the lawn care companies invade suburban communities, firing up their lawn mowers and leaf blowers to groom lawns with earsplitting precision.[5] Many of us never noticed the noise because we weren’t home when small armies of mowers and blowers did their work.  Now we notice the 90+ decibel leaf blowers used to break up clumps of mown grass and to blow a stray leaf from one side of the yard to the other. And when there are two or three leaf blowers going at one time it really can be deafening.[6]

This is a good year to find quiet and uncrowded places to visit – preferably not too far from home, so you can drive and not get on an airplane. Many local and regional newspapers and local magazines are providing information about things to do within driving distance, ranging from drive-in theater offerings to local hikes.  Interest in camping, fishing, and biking has risen considerably this year, as people turn to the outdoors avoid crowds.[7]  Another option is to escape into books, videos, podcasts, or movies that take you to another place.

If you google Quietest Places on Earth you find that most of the entries list places where there is the least manmade sound (away from trains, planes, and automobiles) and where there are times where nature is silent.  Some city-dwellers are moving to rural areas to avoid crowds, to enjoy rural countryside, and to have more room[8] - they might be surprised how at the noise – natural and manmade – that come with rural landscapes. 

Measuring Sounds

Sounds are measured in decibels (intensity) and hertz (frequency) which are independent of one another. A sound can be very loud, but at a frequency we can’t hear (e.g., dog whistles). The table below shows the decibel level of everyday (and not-so-everyday) sounds. Three of the loudest sounds come from nature – although thunder is the only one we hear regularly – the others, likely not at all (volcanoes and sperm whales).[9] 

SOUND

DECIBELS

A mosquito from 20 feet away

0

A whisper

20

Bird calls

44

Conversation at home

50

Vacuum cleaner

70

Blender

88

Leaf blower

95-106

Jackhammer

100

Thunder

120

Krakatoa from 100 miles away

172

Sperm whale echolocation

174

Saturn V Rocket

204

 

Loud Sounds and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is very common – according to the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging, about one third of people between 65 and 74 and almost half over 75 have hearing loss. There is a wide range of hearing loss, from mild to total.  Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) comes on gradually and seems to run in families.  Tinnitus (ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing in the ears) is also common in older people and may be the first sign of hearing loss.[10]

According to the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, loud noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Loud sounds do not need to be long-lasting to harm the sensitive structures of your inner ear, even brief sounds can be harmful.  Some recreational activities are can put you at risk include target shooting, hunting, snowmobile riding, listening to music at high volume through earbuds or headphones, playing in a band, and attending loud concerts. Other common sources of lout noise are lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and woodworking tools.[11]

Prevention of noise induced hearing loss is as simple as turning down the volume on your TV or radio and wearing appropriate protection (earplugs, noise cancelling earmuffs) when participating in recreational or other activities that expose you to sounds over 85 decibels. You can download a sound measurement app to your smartphone to check noise levels, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App.[12]

Another way to avoid the sounds of machines is to leave them behind and head to the hills (or rivers, forests, prairies, or

The quietest places on earth

When you look up the quietest places on earth, the results tend to include the places with the least noise pollution produced by man.  The list below is from the Telegraph (2017), but is corroborated by other such lists.[13], [14]

1&2    Anechoic chambers – Microsoft’s Building 87, WA, US and Orfield Laboratories, MN, US – These facilities are used for audio and device testing.  Most people last for only about 20 minutes on their own in them, where they can hear only their own bodies.

3         Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, WA, US – There is little air tourism (unlike Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon) and no roads cut through the park.  In addition to sounds from the weather, natural sounds come from more than 300 species of birds and 70 species of  mammals. Acoustic ecologist, George Hempton, has established One Square Inch of Silence, possibly the quietest place in the United States.

4         Kelso Dunes, Mojave Desert, US – When the heat keeps away visitors and wildlife, the only sounds are wind and an occasional car or train in the distance.  At twilight and early morning, the wind dies down and silence reigns.

5         Kielder Mires, England - England’s largest blanket bog (blanket bogs develop in highland areas with significant rainfall: the bog "blankets" an entire area, including hills and valleys) is far from roads or flight paths. 

6         Landmannalaugar, Iceland – one of a number of quiet roads on volcanic patches in Iceland.

7         Zurich, Switzerland – least noise polluted city, according to the World Hearing Index, based on 200,000 hearing tests worldwide and on research from the World health Organization.

8         Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana – one of the world’s largest salt flats located in the middle of a dry desert.  There is little wildlife during the dry season, but it is an important habitat for migrating birds and animals when it rains.

9         Antarctica – Never permanently inhabited by humans, the frozen continent is home to some well-known wildlife species, including emperor penguins, leopard seals, orcas, albatross and blue whales.

10       Tak Be Ha Cenote, Mexico – One of the nearly 7,000 underwater caves of the Yucatan Peninsula.

11       Krubera Cave, Georgia – The world’s deepest cave at more than two kilometers deep, which is still being explored. Described by and explorer as “like climbing into an inverted Mount Everest.”[15]

12       Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada – one of the world’s remaining unspoiled prairie lands and, according to George Hempton, the quietest grasslands ecosystem on earth.

13       Haleakala National Park, HI, US – The volcano’s summit is 10,023 feet and the crater floor is almost 2,500 feet below the summit.  

The first map below, from the National Park Service, shows the quietest places in the US - dark blue are the quietest, light yellow the loudest – where there are more people in cities and suburbs (image credit – NPS Natural Sounds & Night Skies Division).[16]

Sound Map 1

 

The second map (below) shows the estimated loudness of natural sounds (without people), in decibels. (image credit – NPS Natural Sounds & Night Skies Division).[17]

Sound Map 2

Finally, National Geographic recently offered a list of the planet’s last few ‘naturally quiet’ places, including a number of areas in the US – typically with the least flyover traffic and remote from other transportation.[18] 

By the Sea

Some quiet activities may also provide a good meal:  fishing with a rod and reel in a river, from a rowboat, or a boat with an electric motor; crabbing with a handline from a boat or dock; oystering or clamming in a cove or along a sandbar.  Of course you have to be in the right place to participate in such an activity and it may require specialized equipment and licenses.  If you can’t get to the shore, the next best thing is a seafood dinner prepared with high quality seafood delivered to your door – fish, shellfish, and crabs and lobster.  Pair with a nice glass of wine or a beachy drink and you’re transported to your favorite coastal retreat. 

References

[1]  Wright, Christian L. what does coronavirus mean for your summer vacation? A smart traveler’s guide. The Wall Street Journal. May 30, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-does-coronavirus-mean-for-your-summer-vacation-a-smart-travelers-guide-11590811254

[2]  Florida and South Carolina again set records as U.S. coronavirus cases surge. The New York Times. June 20, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/20/world/coronavirus-updates.html#link-2204ff25

[3]  New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will impose a quarantine on travelers from any state where infections pass a certain level.  The order currently applies to nine states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, Utah, Texas  https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/tri-state-to-require-visitors-from-covid-hotspots-to-quarantine/2482284/

[4]  E.U. may bar American travelers as it reopens borders, citing failures on virus.  The New York Times. June 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/world/europe/coronavirus-EU-American-travel-ban.html

[5]  Chepesiuk, Ron. Decibel Hell:  the effects of living in a noisy world. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2005 Jan; 113(1): A34-A41. doi: 10.1289/ehp.113-a34 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1253729/

[6]  Banks, Jamie. Environmental noise:  It’s more than just decibels. APHA’s 2019 Annual Meeting and Expo (Nov. 2 – Nov. 6).  https://apha.confex.com/apha/2019/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/452053

[7]  Glusac, Elaine. The new escapism:  Isolationist travel.  The New York Times. June 24, 2020.  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/travel/camping-outdoors-resorts-viru.html

[8]  Bender, Ruth. Escape to the country:  Why city living is losing its appeal during the pandemic.  The Wall Street Journal. June 21, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/escape-to-the-country-why-city-living-is-losing-its-appeal-during-the-pandemic-11592751601?mod=hp_listc_pos3

[9] Koerth, Maggie. The loudest sound in the world would kill you on the spot. Fivethirtyeight.com. July 7, 2016. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-loudest-sound-in-the-world-would-kill-you-on-the-spot/

[10]  https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/hearing-loss-common-problem-older-adults

[11]  https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/noise-induced-hearing-loss

[12]  DiFrancesco, Jackie, Asha Brogan and Bryan Beamer. Grounds for change:  Reducing noise exposure in grounds management professionals - Part 1. CDC NIOSH Science blog. July 25, 2018. https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2018/07/25/landscape-noise1/

[13]  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/the-quietest-places-on-earth/

[14]  https://www.cirrusresearch.co.uk/blog/2017/12/top-ten-quietest-places-earth/

[15]  Klimchouk, Alexander. Call of the abyss – world’s deepest cave. National Geographic Magazine. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/earth/surface-of-the-earth/deepest-cave/

[16]  Imster, Eleanor. Map shows loudest, quietest places in U.S. EarthSky.org - Earth Science Wire.  February 19, 2015. https://earthsky.org/earth/map-shows-loudest-quietest-places-in-u-s

[17]  Imster, Eleanor. Map shows loudest, quietest places in U.S. EarthSky - Earth Science Wire.  February 19, 2015. https://earthsky.org/earth/map-shows-loudest-quietest-places-in-u-s

[18]  Ward, Terry. Discover the planet’s last few ‘naturally quiet’ places. National Geographic. June 17, 2020.  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/2020/06/discover-the-planets-last-few-naturally-quiet-places/